We often talk about films having a viewpoint. While this encompasses the relationship between the camera and the film’s subjects, we are also apt to extend this viewpoint to more philosophical considerations: a film’s view on race, poverty, injustice, and other topics we have debated for decades. This lens serves as a window into the deeper expanse of the film’s center; a place to which we as audience members project our experiences, dreams, and darkest fears. Inside Out, the fifteenth feature from the renowned Pixar Animation Studios, makes you wonder if movies can be more than just a window and instead be a more active, thoughtful instrument in how we interact with the world around us. But director Pete Docter does not take us on a sprawling journey to the ends of the earth. Instead we take a deep dive within ourselves.
What on the surface appears ordinary becomes illuminated into a spectacular vision of a place rarely explored in cinema. Our heroine, eleven-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), has her world turned upside down when her parents decide to move from their Minnesota home to San Francisco, thus leaving behind friends, hobbies (she is an avid hockey player), and a life that yielded fond, joyful memories. We know this because at the switches of the control panel in her mind is Joy (Amy Poehler), one of five emotions that vie for influence on Riley’s feelings and actions. The other emotions are Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Louis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader), who each appear in a different color and have a distinct look. Adorning the control room are shelves of glowing orbs, each containing a memory in Riley’s life and taking on a color that corresponds to one of the emotions. Hundreds of memories are formed each day only to be swept out of the control room and stored in her long term memory banks, but Riley’s most important memories, or “core memories,” remain near the control panel for use when Riley is experiencing a particularly difficult day. An overwhelming majority of Riley’s memories glow yellow with Joy, including all of her core memories.
As such, Joy takes it upon herself to cope with Riley’s changing surroundings at the expense of the other four emotions and to the effect that Sadness, aware of her seemingly needless existence, feels compelled to touch some of the joyful core memories, slowly turning them blue. This plays out in Riley’s world to demonstrate that nostalgia can evoke happiness or lament under the right context of circumstances. As Joy wrestles with Sadness over the orbs, an accident causes them to be inadvertently swept out of the control room with Riley’s core memories and thrust into the expanse of Riley’s brain, leaving Anger, Disgust, and Fear at the controls. The rest of the film follows Joy and Sadness racing back to headquarters with the memories intact before Riley loses her identity and personality.
Docter’s vision of the mind is at once concrete and intuitive, but it also leaves enough room to spark curiosity and wonder about the possibilities of this world. One example is the set of islands that represent core tenets of Riley’s personality (Family, Goofball, Honesty, Hockey, etc.). In the eyes of youngsters, these will resemble the kingdoms at numerous Disney theme parks, while to adults they are a nod to the iconic pop-up book-esque opening sequences to “Game of Thrones.” The longer Anger, Disgust, and Fear ineffectively feign happiness, the connections from headquarters to the islands weaken and eventually collapse, resulting in some of the most emotionally charged disaster-like sequences you may see all year.
It is during this rather large second act that the most mesmerizing and divisive elements of Inside Out appear, and it is here where Docter takes his most calculated risks that ultimately pay off. He eases off the gas pedal to ruminate on the questions a world like this procures, but the more Joy and Sadness discover as they wander the corridors of Riley’s long term memory (which from above resemble the curvatures of our brain, an inspired touch), the wisdom imparted to them ends up sparking more questions in the audience—in the best way possible. These junctures—the theme park Imagination Land, the movie studio Dream Productions, the kaleidoscopic Abstract Thought, and the dark forested Subconscious—work in the way the best Pixar gags do: to great comedic effect but also towards a deeper resonance with the overarching themes of the film. What sets Pixar and Docter apart is the number of levels the ideas take root. Most memorable of these is an encounter with Bing-Bong, an imaginary friend from Riley’s earlier years voiced by Richard Kind. While charming in his nobility and inherent silliness, his arc also speaks poignantly to the things we must “give up” as we grow up.
Speaking of grown-ups, we also see into the minds of Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) in another inspired choice by Docter, and they are led by different emotions—stereotypically but to sidesplitting effect. It remains a running joke through the rest of the film and into the credits, and it becomes funnier and funnier at each occurrence, whether looking inside the mind of a teenage boy Riley encounters or a stray cat. I even found myself wondering which emotion would influence the minds of my own friends and family because the conceit is universal. More importantly, no single configuration of emotions is the “right” one.
This notion is in such direct opposition to the adage we tell our children and ourselves: “I just want you to be happy,” or “As long as I am happy.” Have we failed in life if we are not always 100% full of joy? And if the point of life is not just to be happy, what remains? What is a more noble pursuit? Self-actualization? Self-awareness? When contemplating this question in the context of Inside Out, consider the sum of memories in our own lives and imagine the endless shelves of glowing orbs in our minds. The beauty of this film is that it celebrates our collective experiences without discounting the power of a single moment in time. What matters more is not the color of the orb, but what can be found inside it. Some containing triumph, some containing tragedy, but always possessing truth.